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The Daily Need

Deconstructing the myth of the ‘extraordinary teacher’

Photo: AP/Bob Wands

Last week, The Los Angeles Times published an Op-Ed by high-school teacher Ellie Herman entitled “The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher,” which challenges the compelling – and oftentimes unrealistic – notion held by many policy makers that “superstar” teachers will single-handedly save our education system.

Herman argues that even the most talented teachers can be thwarted by relentless budget cuts and a dysfunctional public education system. For Herman, a larger classroom means that she has less time to devote to individual students; as a result, she often feels less capable in her chosen profession. The hard reality of bigger class sizes is that teachers — even highly capable ones — often become less effective when confronted with the competing demands of 30-plus students with disparate needs.

Or as Herman states, “We can’t demand that teachers be excellent in conditions that preclude excellence.” Herman’s editorial begs the question if it’s easier for policy makers to put the onus on individual teachers because it relieves them of the pressure to make the hard decisions that many of our country’s most intractable education problems require.

She points to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in July, in which he claimed that the billions of dollars spent in the United States to reduce class size was a misguided policy decision. Rather, Duncan said that many top performing countries like Japan and Korea have accepted larger class sizes to pay qualified teachers more. “The best thing you can do,” he said in his interview with Mitchell, “is get children in front of an extraordinary teacher.”

In a similar vein, Bill Gates wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post expressing a similar sentiment earlier this year. “What should policymakers do?” asked Gates, “Get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students.” He backed up his claim with a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, which he claims showed that 83 percent of surveyed teachers said would be happy to teach more students for more pay. (In fact, what the survey showed is that many teachers would take a $5,000 pay increase instead of a reduction in class size of two students per class.)

Accepting larger classrooms on the condition of higher pay and talented instruction is far from a proven solution on its own. For example, Duncan’s data set includes many countries (like Finland and South Korea) with a high percentage of students who pay for after-school tutoring. At the school in South Los Angeles where Herman teaches, most parents could not afford private tutors.

Herman’s argument seems to point to a third perspective amidst an often two-sided debate on education reform in the media that focuses on teachers: either that we maintain support for tenure and unions at all cost or place all our hope in teachers with supernatural powers to rise above all odds and deliver higher test scores. Herman underscores the need to recognize standout teachers, but reminds us that that the most effective ones are often aided by reasonable demands and policies.

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  • Jess

    Thank you for bringing to light the issues raised in Herman’s “The Myth of the Extraordinary Teacher.” Just as no man is an island, nor is a teacher, even an extraordinary one. We must continue having these conversations in as many spaces as possible. 

  • Michael Foster

    Just google “schools glasser” and find out what system changes are needed to have quality schools that produce qualtiy students.

  • Steve Carrigg

    I have been attempting to implement William Glasser’s educational ideas for nearly 10 years within the constraints of a traditional public high school. It has been rewarding for me and my students to some extent, but it is challenging when it is not system wide and there is little support of anything that challenges the educational status quo.


  • Educator37

         Finland, South Korea and Singapore have parents who respect teachers, encourage learning and support a good education for their children–key word is parents.  Singapore, with the world’s highest test scores, also highly repects teachers and pays them 250% more than American teachers.  Keep in mind all three countries have homogeneous populations/cultures, unlike the U.S 
        In America, parents and critics blame teachers–key word blame.  They say schools fail, when it is parents who faill–fail to teach their chiildren respect for authority, following the rules, doing their work, behaving in class and a sound work ethic. I have never seen a hard working, well behaved student fail no matter what their socioeconomic status.
         Most of the American politicians, especially Republicans (or critics of education, for that matter) wouldn’t last an hour teaching in a public school with students who are low income, EBD, EH, ESOL, ADHD, IND, SLD, Behavior Disorder, ODD, etc. yet they say we need to reform our schools starting with merit (performance) pay, taking away tenure, high stakes testing and removing collective bargining rights from teachers. Sure I”ll take merit pay if I can pick the students in my class.
         Solutions?  Further class size reduction, vocational and apprenticeship training, high pay for teachers equal to their degree status, parental and community support and recruiting top college graduates, where they have the potential to have financially secure careers like their conterparts in business and industry. Finally, return to using testing as a diagnostic tool rather than the sole measure of teacher and school performance.